Analysis of the poem “Prayer of Steel” by Carl Sanburg
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Lay me on an anvil, O God
Beat me and hammer me into a crowbar.
Let me pry loose old walls.
Let me lift and loosen old foundations
Lay me on an anvil, Oh God.
Beat me and hammer me into a steel spike.
Drive me into the girders that hold a skyscraper together.
Take red-hot rivets and fasten me into the central girders.
Let me be the great nail holding a skyscraper together through blue nights into white stars.
A formalist reading of the poem
“Prayer of Steel” is a short poem composed of 9 lines, the ninth being the longest. The cohesive devices in the poem will be analyzed on three levels: lexical, grammatical, and phonological. The analysis will be made first of the individual stanzas, then of the overall structure of the whole poem. Leech’s concept of cohesion will be referred to where necessary.
The title “Prayers of Steel” is an example of “foregrounding”: steel is a kind of metal, thus it is inanimate and cannot perform the action of saying prayers, an action performed only by a human being. Obviously, the poet has deviated from the generally observed rulles of the language, and it is significant that these are prayers of steel, not of rubber. The inference is that whatever the speaker wishes to accomplish will require a great deal of strength and determination. From the title, “foregrounding” then extends into the poem so that we have “cohesion of foregrounding”, in which the foregrounded features identified in isolation are related to one another, and to the poem as a whole, as can be observed below.
Cohesion in the individual stanzas
Lexical cohesion: First we observe that among all the images used in the first stanza, there is semantic association, whereby worsd of related meanings are grouped together. “Steel”- in the title- is one of the materials indispensable in construction. Then we find types of construction tools: “anvil”, “hammer”, “crowbar”, ;we also find a set of action verbs that are related to these tools: “lay,” “beat,” “hammer,” “pry,” “lift,” “loosen”; we see “old wall” and “old foundations” that have to be removed. Consequently, there is a tie between these images, which all suggest aspects of construction. We also feel that strength and determination is required to handle thesetools and to perform these actions.
Another observation is that there is lexical repetition: “old” and “let me” occur in the third and fourth lines, which adds to the feeling of strong determination suggested by the images of semantic association. Particularly, the pronoun “me” is found in all the four lines of the first stanza. This repetition is obviously deliberate and meaningful. It would be an oversimplification and a big loss to say that this repetition is just for emphasis and move to the next point. It needs digging deeper. We should thus not allow it to escape us as we will return and account for it later.
Grammatical cohesion: All the four lines are parallel request forms: “Lay me” “Beat me” “Let me” “Let me”. Such parallel arrangement sharpens the idea of determination and strength already suggested by the lexical cohesive features. Together with “O God,” these parallel forms establish the prayer tone for the poem.
Phonological cohesion: Sound repetitions have been used to provide ties between related terms. We can observe the repetition of /l/ in “Let…lift and loosen” (alliteration), the /m/ in “…me and hammer me” (consonance), and the /i/ in “Beat me” to sharpen the idea of strength and determination already suggested lexically and grammatically. Accordingly, there is a fusion of sound and sense: sound has been used as an echo to sense; sound and sense are interwined. This would irretrievably be lost in a paraphrase, no matter how exhaustive it may be.
Lexical cohesion: The same pattern of lexical cohesion is found in this stanza. Again we have words that describe construction tools. Besides “anvil” and “hammer”, which have been used in the first stanza, we find “steelpike,” “girders,” “rivets,” and “nail.” We also find a series of new action verbs that are related to these tools: “drive,” “hold together,” and “fasten.” Once old walls and old foundations have been torn down, a skyscraper is to be built. The idea of strength and determination is still felt and intensified by the use of modifiers: “red-hot rivets,” “central girders,” “great nail.” Consequently, as in the first stanza, there is semantic association- a cohesive web among the words of related meanings.
In addition to the set of words that describe aspects of construction, we find another set that appears more “poetic”: “blue nights” and “white stars.” These images form the background to the skyscraper- the final accomplishment. Put together, the image of the skyscraper against a background of blue nights and white stars is too meaningful to be overlooked or treated superficially. We will have to dig deeper for symbolic meanings later.
Also, as in the first stanza, there is lexical repetiti:on: “girders” occurs in the seventh and eighth lines, and ” skyscraper” occurs in the seventh and ninth lines, which adds to the feeling of strong determination in the same way as “old” and “let me” do in the first stanza. Again, the pronoun “me” is found in all the five lines of the second stanza, thus occuring in every line of the poem. This is too significant to be overlooked.
Grammatical cohesion: Again we find the parallel request forms- exactly the same way as in the first stanza. Besides “Lay me…” “Beat me…” “Let me…” we find “Drive me…” “Take…and fasten me…” The repetition and addition of parallel request forms further sharpen the idea of determination and strength already suggested by the lexical cohesive features. Again, “O God” is found, which makes the prayer tone (established in the first stanza) more urgent, more persistent. The last line is unusually long, perhaps to match the full outpour of the speaker’s fervent emotions.
Phonological cohesion: As in stanza 1, sound repetitions have been used to provide ties between related items. Again, we find alliteration, or the repetition of initial consonant sounds: /s/ in ‘steel spike”, and /r/ in “red-hot rivets” (as /l/ in “Let…lift and loosen” in stanza 1). We also find assonanse, or the repetition of vowel sounds: /ai/ in “Drive me…skyscraper”. The unusually long last line, which expresses the speaker’s “climax” of emotion, sees a series of assonances: /ei/ in “great nail,” /ai/ in “skyscraper,” “nights,” and “white,” and /u/ in “through” and “blue.” These sound repetitions are so frequent in the poem that we can hardly say the poet has used them hapharzadly or casually; rather, they have been intended to create a fusion of sound and sense, which certainly escapes us if we read the poem in a hasty and careless manner.
Overall cohesion of the whole poem
The poem as a whole thus fails into two parts: the first part (lines 1-4) deal with tearing down, and the second (lines 5-9) with building up. Cohesion between the two parts is achieved by the poet’s use of repetition and variation. The repetition of “Lay me on an anvil,O God/Beatme and hammer me into a-” links the second with the first stanza, indicating that they are parts of a prayer; the shifting of “crowbar” into “steelpike” specifies the related but different functions of the two parts. This repetition is sharpened by the occurrence of the same form “Let me” in the last line of both stanzas, providing cohesive links between the two parts of the poem. The second stanza is longer, perhaps to give emphasis to the task of reconstruction, which follows and is, of course, more important than that of demolition. The last line, which is the longest, shows the full outpour of the speaker’s emotions, as we have discussed. The sound devices used in the second stanza, especially assonances, also outnumber those used in the first. Thus, the consistent multi-leveled pattern of repetition/parallelism found within and between the stanzas provide overall cohesion for the poem.